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The playwright who planted trees.

Arthur Miller is best known for Death of a Salesman and his much-publicized marriage to Marilyn Monroe. Few know that he is perhaps the only writer to be blacklisted by McCarthy and the Soviet Union. Fewer still know that the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright has yet another claim to fame. He is a closet Johnny Appleseed.

Twenty-eight years ago, he planted 6,000 pines and firs on his property in Connecticut where he has lived for four decades. Today, he writes in his memoirs, those once-ankle-high seedlings are a dense forest of 60-foot trees with stems thicker than telephone poles."

Born in 1915, Miller grew up in Harlem and recalls that the Big Apple had "a lot more big trees" back then. As an urbanite, he had a thing or two to learn about trees.

What he describes as his first confrontation with nature" occurred when he bought a piece of land about three hours outside the city. One giant tree on his property was engulfed by a hairy vine. "One does not truly own a thing until one has changed it," he points out, -and so I proceeded to own the tree by tearing the vine off with my bare hands. Later that afternoon, as I ate a sandwich in the sun, the first itching began on my belly. "

Poison ivy was not the only lesson he learned the hard way. In front of his country home was a row of seven huge maples. "I built a stone wall and killed off those maples," he admits in the unmistakable inflections of a born-and-bred New Yorker. "But then the house kept heating up from the lack of shade. " So he hired a nursery to move in some sizable replacements.

After that, the nurseryman provided advice when the playwright decided to venture into the nursery business himself. Miller grew seven or eight varieties of trees-locusts, katsura-trees, lindens, and amur cork trees-and sold a few. It was never a big operation, but at least it paid for itself.

At one time, he also thought about growing fruit trees. He recalls the day Marilyn Monroe asked what that thing was sticking out of the chassis of his new Land Rover. "I told her it was a power-takeoff shaft to drive spraying equipment for fruit trees I intended to plant. "

From the beginning, tragedy-and a tree-haunted the Miller-Monroe marriage. Married in a quiet ceremony to avoid the press, they returned home only to find a Chevrolet mangled around a maple tree near their house.

"We stopped, and I got out and looked and saw a woman stretched out on the front seat, her neck obviously broken. At the house, which we reached in a moment, an ambulance was already pulling up, and a mob of some 50 newspeople, cameramen, and onlookers was directing the driver to the accident.

Miller explains that the dead woman was a reporter who had hitched a ride with a photographer. "He had mistaken a passing car for mine, roared off in pursuit, failed to make this turn, and collided with the tree. The struck tree slowly rotted and after half a dozen years finally toppled over, leaving a stump that my eye could not avoid looking for in the weeds whenever I drove past. "

One day, the famed poet Robert Lowell and his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, dropped by for a visit. After complimenting Miller on a speech he'd given at a PEN meeting -Miller was president of the international writers organization-Lowell asked about the varieties of trees the playwright was raising.

"I got on the tractor to show him how I pruned the roots with a device I had fashioned and attached to the cultivator bar." This was in the days before special tools were developed for pruning roots.

Miller's third wife is internationally known photographer Inge Morath, whose images have appeared in Life and Holiday and are housed in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She says that when Miller isn't writing, his outlet is to work outdoors. She adds that the other thing he does is invent tools: "He's very practical. "

Miller picked up some of his knowledge of trees from neighbors, some from Robert Josephi, an old friend who owned an apple orchard, and some from literature received from the Department of Agriculture.

Inge Morath's father was a professor of wood technology at a university in Vienna and worked with the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization on reforestation projects. Morath recalls that her husband got more advice from the state forester than he did from his father-in-law, who "was more of a theoretician. "

Inge Morath was eight months pregnant when she and Miller began planting the 6,000 pines and firs. "I thought it was a beautiful thing to do when expecting a baby," she explains. Today that baby is a young woman, Rebecca, a painter and actress. She sees the forest as her woods,- says Morath, adding that Rebecca is active in environmental causes, including tree planting.

The playwright explains how his own tree planting came about: "There is a hillside within sight of the house," he says, 'a swampy area with hummocks and a lot of stone. It's not very handsome to look at." He adds that the farmer who owned the land before he did and the farmer's forebears turned their backs on this "impossible land, which was not even good enough for grazing. We decided to plant the trees, basically for aesthetic reasons. We got the seedlings from a state nursery and planted them on eight- to 1 0-foot centers. "

He writes in his memoirs, For three days we went out and climbed the hillside, planting the hundreds of seedlings" out of a pad. The playwright and his very-pregnant wife put in about half the trees by hand, hiring two men to plant the remaining 3,000 with a tractor-pulled planter wherever the land was not too swampy.

Miller admits that he has done little to care for what he variously calls his plantation" or "tree farm." For one thing, he says, he has done absolutely nothing about trimming the trees, and in fact on 10-foot centers they crowd each other. But the land has healed itself. It is now good land instead of swamp, and after so many years of needles dropping on it, it has a fantastic scent."

He adds that he has always been fascinated by how fast trees grow. "Maybe there's some maple sprout that you neglected to cut down-you turn around and it's 20 feet high," he says. "Trees tell you the passage of time.'

In fact, Miller titled his memoirs Timebends," and he concludes the 600page autobiography with the story of his forest. In the final, eloquent words of the book, he writes that he has been surprised by the recent appearance of coyotes in his woods:

There is more unbroken forest from Canada down to here than there was even in Lincoln's youth, the farms having gradually vanished, and there is even the odd bear, they say, a wanderer down from the north, and now these coyotes. I have seen them....

And so the coyotes are out there earnestly trying to arrange their lives to make more coyotes possible, not knowing that it is my forest, of course. And I am in this room from which I can sometimes look out at dusk and see them warily moving through the barren winter trees, and I am, I suppose, doing what they are doing, making myself possible and those who come after me. At such moments I do not know whose land this is that I own, or whose bed I sleep in. In the darkness out there they see my light and pause, muzzles lifted, wondering who I am and what I am doing here in this cabin under my light. I am a mystery to them until they tire of it and move on, but the truth, the first truth, probably, is that we are all connected, watching one another. Even the trees. " AF
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Title Annotation:'Death of a Salesman' author Arthur Miller
Author:Davis, Nora Deakin
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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